Evaluating boarding house reform

23 April 2018 | Posted In: #133 Autumn 2018, Boarding Houses, | Author: Paul Adabie

Five years after the NSW Boarding House Act was passed, the State Government is about to evaluate how effective the Act has been. Paul Adabie explores the changes in the sector and the impact of the new Act.

The Boarding House Act 2012 was passed in October 2012. Its intention was for a whole of government response to concerns for the rights and safety of people living in boarding houses. The State Government is about to evaluate these changes. The community should also take the time to assess if the boarding house sector has improved and if the Act achieved its objectives.

Newtown Neighbourhood Centre (NNC) has had a dedicated Boarding House Service that supports residents of general boarding houses for several years. Such immersion in this marginalised sector provides NNC with first-hand exposure to the experiences of people living in boarding houses and a unique insight into the changes within the sector.

The Act was largely framed from a disability perspective. It was the preventable deaths of six residents in a Marrickville based boarding house that was the final straw in forcing the State Government to take action. As a result 75 percent of the 2012 Act is concerned with Assisted Boarding Houses (formally known as licensed boarding houses); these properties today make up only 0.03% of the boarding house sector and their numbers are set to further reduce.

In 2011, newspaper articles estimated there were around 455 boarding houses in the State (SMH 13/6/11). At the end of October 2017, there were 1033 properties on the Boarding House Register, representing 16,753 bed spaces. The numbers on the Register have continued to increase month on month, challenging the prevailing view that the boarding house sector is in decline.

The establishment of a Boarding House Register was one of the key provisions of the 2012 Act. It required both General and Assisted boarding houses to register. The fact that it’s possible to quote the number of registered boarding houses in the state is to some degree a marker of the success of the Act, perhaps one of its few successes? Prior to 2012, there was no state-wide register and data collection varied across local councils. Hosted by NSW Fair Trading, the public assessable register has a limited search function, and could be improved; nevertheless, it’s a step in the right direction.

The Boarding House Team at NNC believe the Register captures only half of the sector. Many properties remain unregistered, and there are as many properties operating as a boarding house without registration as there are on the Register.

There are a variety of reasons for non-registration, including operators being unaware of the requirement, and those wishing to evade scrutiny and oversight. Whilst the Register is hosted by Fair Trading, responsibility for promoting and enforcing the registration requirement was passed to Local Councils with no additional resources. Very few local governments have embraced this responsibility and as a result the Register should not be relied on to give a complete picture of the sector.

There are increasing government ‘benefits’, such as land tax exemptions, resident’s access to rent bond loans and fire safety grants, that require a boarding house to be registered before the proprietor can access such products. This ‘carrot’ approach to encouraging registration must be seen as a positive change. A determined effort to increase registration still needs to be undertaken, though.

Information from the Register is compromised by confusion in the term ‘boarding house’. In its rush to increase housing supply as way of addressing the housing crisis, the State Environmental Planning Policy (Affordable Rental Housing) 2009 introduced the term to a new style of premises that bears little resemblance to our more traditional understanding of what a boarding house is. Developments under this policy find their way onto the Register, because Fair Trading do not actively manage it, but simply list those that seek to register.

Sometimes referred to as mega or new generation boarding houses, there are a number of concerns regarding these developments, which can be seen all over the city. They are, in reality, mini flat-lets or super studios – living spaces can be as small as 12 square metres and, for the most part, they are not affordable. Using the term ‘boarding house’ for such properties, developers can evade paying land tax. Unsurprisingly, they are increasingly popular with developers.

Such confusion exemplifies how the ‘boarding house space’ sits at the intersection of a number of competing interests and influences, and thus, remains marginalised. The drifting of attention to the new generation properties, which have little in common with the traditional sector, leads to a misunderstanding of the term ‘boarding house’ and in turn a neglect of the true nature of boarding house residents and their occupancy rights.

A further challenge is that boarding houses are not uniformly spread across the state and not all local governments have to deal with them. Those that do have a high concentration (this includes Sydney and the Inner West) have no additional resources to respond to the challenges presented i.e. enforcing registration, ensuring the use of occupancy agreements and looking out for residents with ‘additional needs’.

Regarding the improved protection for residents, the impact of the Act remains, at best, patchy. Many boarding house operators remain reluctant to spend money on repairs to their properties, resulting in poor quality accommodation and substandard facilities. The problems go beyond disrepair. There are numerous boarding house properties that lack even basic facilities such as a kitchen, yet rents for a small single room are easily $190 a week, if not more.

The affordability issue is beyond the scope and remit of the Act. The sector is not immune to the housing and rental affordably crisis that grips Sydney. Those on Newstart payments are most exposed. There are many residents paying very high rents, sometimes 60 or 70 percent of their income, for very poor conditions. There are few avenues to seek redress and the fear of retaliatory evictions remains as prevalent as it ever was.

Despite this glum picture, there are some glimmers of hope. There are a few operators who work hard in trying to provide decent housing for poor people. To recognise this, NNC launched the inaugural boarding house awards, earlier in the year. The aim was to change the negative narrative that accompanies boarding house style accommodation, by focusing on the better properties and operators, rather than on the horror stories. (see box)

Inner West Boarding House Good Practice Awards.
The Boarding House Outreach Service team members visit many boarding houses as part of their work and can see the real difference that living in a well-managed, safe boarding house can make in someone’s life. Moreover, many residents are isolated from friends and family when they move into a boarding house, so a positive, welcoming environment can be a crucial aspect of their wellbeing.

In acknowledgement of this understanding, the Good Practice Awards were created – to celebrate good practice in the provision of boarding house accommodation and to acknowledge the important role that a person can play in encouraging a sense of community and belonging amongst residents and to the local area where they live.

In the pilot year of this project, three awards were created:

1.     Large Boarding House of the Year (13 or more residents)

2.     Small Boarding House of the Year (less than 13 residents)

3.     Community Connection Award, recognising an individual who shows a commitment to encouraging a sense of belonging amongst residents.

The project was supported by a number of local organisations with an interest in supporting boarding house residents, through their involvement in a steering committee, and as members of the awards judging panel, with financial support kindly provided by the Eastern Prudential Insurance Group.

Newtown Neighbourhood Centre was excited by the positive response of this inaugural awards process and is currently considering the further development of the Boarding House Good Practice Awards.

Providing decent housing for poor people is perhaps at the crux of the problem; how can the private sector make a profit from housing poor people? Many residents have complex histories and have experienced multiple traumas. The social housing system is ‘broken’ and unable to meet the demands placed upon it. The private sector can cherry pick applicants, leaving many exposed to operators who choose to operate outside of any regulatory systems.

Linked to this challenge, the Boarding House Team at Newtown Neighbourhood Centre is seeing increasing incidents of ‘reno-victions’, where older, sometimes run-down boarding houses are being redeveloped into modern, high-standard properties, often self-contained with kitchenettes and bathrooms. On the surface, this is a good thing. Modern amenities should raise the living quality of those relying on the boarding house sector for housing. The problem is that the vast majority of these redevelopments have been accompanied by steep rent increases, which price out the original residents. We recently witnessed a weekly increase from $140 to $220 a week!

These refurbished Boarding Houses are marketed to university students and younger workers. This demographic shift is concerning as it pushes out vulnerable older residents and those dependent on welfare payments. FACS Housing services are unable to pick up the displaced residents who may have no priority need, and society is left with a problem of increasing homelessness.

While the sector is growing, the pool of housing accessible to the most vulnerable members of society is shrinking rapidly, and the gap between affordability and quality is widening.

It will take more than a revised Act to reduce this trend.

Paul Adabie work with the Boarding House Project at Newtown Neighbourhood Centre